The first-ever ICAEW Public Sector Conference: “The road to net zero” was held on 10 December 2021, focusing on sustainability and the importance of the public sector to achieving net zero. Held virtually, there was a wide range of attendees from those who work in and with the public sector at all levels including central government, the devolved administrations, local government and public corporations.
The conference was opened by Michael Izza, Chief Executive of ICAEW, who highlighted the important role the public sector has in achieving the government’s net zero ambition. He noted the progress ICAEW had made in becoming the first professional body to achieve carbon neutrality and the key role the accountancy profession has to play as emphasised by ICAEW’s vision of a world of sustainable economies.
Iain Wright, Managing Director, Reputation and Influence at ICAEW, introduced the first keynote speaker: Adrian Crompton, the Auditor General for Wales. Adrian talked about the urgency with which we should be taking action, and how we must up our level of technical knowledge so that we can credibly explain, assure and inspire in this area. He urged us to challenge our mindset to make a difference.
Veronica Poole, Vice Chair and Senior Accounting Technical Partner at Deloitte UK, one of our panel on financial and sustainability reporting, talked about the establishment of the International Sustainability Standards Board, which expects to issue the first exposure drafts of sustainability standards in early 2022 with the aim of driving consistent and comparable reporting on sustainability going forwards. Conrad Hall, Corporate Director of Resources for the London Borough of Newham and chair of the CIPFA/LASAAC Board, was very keen to note that just because the task of incorporating sustainability into local authority reporting might be difficult it didn’t mean that we should not be doing anything about it – indeed we should be building on best practice. Tom Taylor, Chief Financial Officer for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, echoed the simple message that the public sector need not reinvent the wheel and should adopt good practice and reporting already being developed in the private sector.
In the breakout groups, Alison Ring, Director of Public Sector and Taxation at ICAEW, and Pete Leadbetter, Head of Accounting at Network Rail, led a discussion on what central government finance teams could and should be doing now. We heard some great contributions about how challenging it could be to put physical assets into a good state – not an enviable task when your estate consists of old buildings full of asbestos.
Finance teams from across government wondered if a cross-government support group looking at incorporating sustainability measures into central government reporting might really get to the heart of what is needed in this sector. An idea for the Government Finance Function maybe - if not already established?
Other breakout groups were equally valuable, with ICAEW’s Richard Spencer leading a group discussing the role finance students can play in supporting net zero, Alan Finch from the Local Government Association leading on how audit committee members and councillors can scrutinise how effectively their local authority is decarbonising, Emma Jones from Ashden leading a discussion on the role green procurement and community wealth building can play in achieving their net-zero targets, and Alison Snellen and Nicola Cotter from EY leading a discussion on how to audit and assure progress to net zero.
After a virtual lunch break, ICAEW’s Henning Diederichs facilitated an amazing update from an all-female panel looking at central government coordination with local government on sustainability measures. Katy Losse from the NAO, Jo Wheeler from the UK Green Building Council, Cara Jenkinson from Ashden, and Kate Hand, Head of Climate Change at London Councils, gave a unanimous message that we need coordination and collaboration between central and local government to deliver the net zero and the heat and building strategy – and that funding should be flexible and not having to come from different competitive pots. Levelling up funding will also play a key part in achieving net zero. As ever, funding and strategies seem overly complicated in the local authority sector – just like the accounts!
Introduced by ICAEW’s Oliver Simms, our closing keynote speaker Tony Juniper CBE, Chair of Natural England, gave a rallying cry to us all. Not enough action has been taken over the last 30 years and so we now need to act with decisiveness. Tony reminded us that half of the economy is in the public sector and it must show leadership. Tony also highlighted some of the unforeseen consequences of climate change – providing much food for thought. He asked who could be a leader in this space, providing a good challenge to us here at ICAEW and all those participating on how they can do more to drive change and not just hope that it will happen.
Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector and Taxation at ICAEW, commented: “We were delighted by the level of engagement demonstrated by all the participants in ICAEW’s inaugural Public Sector Conference. What emerged is just how seriously those working in and with the public sector are taking the whole subject of sustainability and the practical steps that will be necessary to achieve our common goals.
“As accountants, we have a key part to play in helping the organisations we work for and with to deliver a sustainable and carbon-neutral world. After all, the going concern of our planet is at stake.”
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